Big cats of Instagram: Pakistani elite’s love of exotic wildlife

July 03, 2019

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KARACHI: Bilal Mansoor Khawaja, a private zoo owner, looks at his white lion.—AFP
KARACHI: Bilal Mansoor Khawaja, a private zoo owner, looks at his white lion.—AFP

KARACHI: Bilal Mansoor Khawaja beams as he runs his palms over the ivory coat of a white lion, one of thousands of exotic animals at his personal “zoo” in Karachi, where a thriving wildlife trade caters to Pakistan’s gilded elite.

“These are... (some) of the rarest animals I own,” boasts the 29-year-old industrialist of his leashed lion.

Pakistani laws make it easy to import exotic animals, but once inside the country, regulation is almost non-existent.

This has led to an untold number of such creatures — especially big cats, seen as symbols of wealth and power — being imported or bred across Pakistan in recent years, much to the horror of helpless wildlife officials.

Social media is littered with videos of wealthy Karachiites cruising with lions sitting in the front seats of luxury SUVs, while newspapers have featured reports of arrests of residents brazenly taking their big cats out for strolls and drives.

Khawaja estimates there are up to 300 lions within Karachi’s city limits alone, kept in gardens, inside rooftop cages, and at farm houses across the sun-baked metropolis of about 20 million — notorious for its grinding traffic, crumbling infrastructure, and lack of green spaces.

Khawaja calls his handful of lions and a tiger the “crown jewels” of a larger collection of more than 4,000 animals he has amassed in recent years.

He insists his collection — made up of some 800 different species — is not about status or prestige but simply a manifestation of his love for pets.

To care for his flock, he has more than 30 people working in shifts and four vets on staff.

The entire operation costs a fortune, Khawaja admits, although he refuses to provide an estimate of just how much he shelled out for his personal zoo.

But the cost and the series of minor injuries he has accrued over the years at the hands of his prized pets are well worth it, he claims.

“With every injury my love for these animals... grows more,” he smiles.

His nine-acre property where a portion of his animals, including zebras, flamingos, and horses, reside is smack in the middle of a dense neighbourhood in the megacity.

Lion farming

Exotic animal dealer Aleem Paracha, who claims to be one of the top three importers of exotic animals in Karachi, says that for 1.4 million rupees he can deliver a white lion to a client in up to 48 hours — and do so entirely legally.

Certificates from the countries of origin along with permits from authorities are provided for any animal brought into Pakistan in accordance with an international treaty to protect endangered species.

But Paracha says there is also a network of breeders across Pakistan that can also provide lions at a moment’s notice, including at least 30 in Karachi.

“In Karachi, lion farming is going very well,” he explains.

And while indigenous species are fiercely protected in Pakistan, the same protections are not extended to imported animals.

The government has guidelines regarding the treatment and type of enclosures big cats and other exotic species should be provided with.

But “the law is silent” on breeding, explains Javed Mahar, head of Sindh province’s wildlife department.

Uzma Khan, a technical adviser with the World Wildlife Fund, says there is not even an authority monitoring government-run zoos, which are notorious for neglect, let alone the private sector.

“There’s lots of private breeders and they are very shady,” Khan adds.

Published in Dawn, July 3rd , 2019